William Fitzgerald’s Circular Design Is ‘Shoddy’. The Mindful Fashion Award-Winner On Why That’s A Good Thing

By Madeleine Crutchley
William Keane Jung-Ying Fitzgerald made this ‘Cockroach’ suit from a storied material called shoddy. Photo / Mara Sommer

William Keane Jung-Ying Fitzgerald, the winner of the Editorial Prize at the Mindful Fashion Circular Design Awards, has sewn a slick suit spun from recycled materials. Madeleine Crutchley gets to know the young designer and unpacks the studious approach to his craft.

In Ōnehunga, there is a factory where fashion

At the entrance to a huge warehouse, rolls of fabric, material scraps and once-loved garments are arranged into lofty piles. The unwanted textiles await their fate, cloaked by a dull but insistent hum that reverberates within the weathered aluminium walls. The monstrous machine producing the noise is busy at work on the other side of the building — consuming the pieces, discarded as waste, one at a time.

Auckland-based design student William Keane Jung-Ying Fitzgerald first visited the textile recycling factory on a volunteer trip, delivering scraps from the fabric bins at Whitecliffe College. He was immediately intrigued by the factory. In particular, he was fascinated by the amalgamative fabric that the scraps would eventually become.

“It’s dark, there are these bales of old wool, recycled clothing and it’s loud and you get hit by the industrial-ness of it. And then, they create carpet underlays, soundproofing, wall insulation, weed matting, so many products — but no one was really using it for fashion purposes.”

These rolls of fabric sit just outside of Textile Products in Ōnehunga, awaiting their turn to run through a recycling machine. Photo / Madeleine Crutchley
These rolls of fabric sit just outside of Textile Products in Ōnehunga, awaiting their turn to run through a recycling machine. Photo / Madeleine Crutchley

Since 1965, Textile Products has been repurposing fabric waste, including fashion industry offcuts, old workwear, unused carpeting and construction materials.

On a tour of the factory, Ben Willis, whose grandfather started the business under the name New Zealand Flock and Textiles in 1937, explains how the huge machinery can take several tonnes of unwanted materials at a time and transform them into felts, wadding, construction assets and, pertinent to William’s design interests, removal blankets.

One of these textiles, made using discarded cotton and wool, is also known as wool shod or “shoddy”.

This oft-overlooked fabric inspired the design that won William the Viva editorial prize at the Mindful Fashion Circular Design Awards in 2023, one of four key awards including prize money, business mentorship and paid internships. Among 86 submissions, William’s 100 per cent recyclable and striking shoddy suit was shortlisted for the final 10, before being announced as a winner at the gala in Auckland.

Upcycled and salvaged materials have long been a staple in William’s approach to fashion.

“A lot of my materials have been scavenged — that has been a driving force behind my design. It’s going to thrift stores, and getting materials, deadstock and remnants from cutting bins or [from] my friends in the fashion industry, claiming production waste, and patching clothing from that. In that regard, it’s a lot cheaper, as people don’t want to deal with waste.”

This approach was also present in his early making, coming from a place of necessity.

Growing up in Australia, William found, like many, that standardised sizes were not made to fit properly. He was also frustrated with prices that became barriers to access and wanted to wear pieces that better expressed his sensibilities.

William Keane Jung-Ying Fitzgerald.
William Keane Jung-Ying Fitzgerald.

So he ran with a sewing elective at high school and doubled up with lessons from a close family friend. This experience sowed the seeds of eco-consciousness and encouraged resourcefulness.

“I lived in hand-me-downs ... I was very aware of repaired, remade, hand-me-down, secondhand, thrifted clothing.”

After moving to Aotearoa in 2012, and while training as a ballet dancer (he joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2014), William’s home-crafted garments caught people’s attention.

At rehearsals in Wellington, fellow dancers, teachers and choreographers expressed intrigue at his ensembles. He started fielding requests to make pieces for the stage and, after one agreement, he found himself handling a load of freelance work.

“I definitely jumped into the deep end, because at that point, most of my skills were self-taught and I had no understanding of pattern-making, of grading. I would just kind of cut and sew.”

Nonetheless, the career ballet dancer found incentive in the enthusiastic responses to his work — requests for his designs kept coming, including one from Royal New Zealand Ballet choreographer Loughlan Prior.

“So, I listened to the universe and was like ‘this is a sign’,” William remembers. “I moved up to Auckland in 2021. That was me stepping away from dancing full-time, and being like, ‘Okay, let’s run with this fashion thing, let’s see how this goes.’”

With a bit of lucky timing and some prior connection through dance, William began working as an intern and production assistant at Zambesi. In a fixed-term role in the workroom, the young designer picked up a “holistic understanding of how clothing is made in New Zealand” as well as a masterclass in the “subtleties of fashion design”.

“Being in the workroom at Zambesi was really cool. There’s a wall of more than 10,000 patterns. It was really interesting, going from being self-taught to then being in this really established, high-quality environment. I was like, ‘I know nothing’, and became quite quiet and just observed and learned as much as I could. I asked questions and I was digging through their archive and going ‘this is incredible’.”

Then, at the end of that stint, William decided to enrol at Whitecliffe in the School of Fashion and Sustainability.

“I burnt out as a freelance designer. I was saying yes to these incredible opportunities but then I didn’t have the support network I needed. I didn’t have the mentors to ask questions or run ideas by. I was, kind of, flying by the seat of my pants. I really needed to upskill.”

He was missing a “creative outlet” and felt excited by the freedom to experiment with his designs at the trade school. When William came across the shoddy in Ōnehunga, he found the beginnings of a hypothesis.

Processed pallets of textile waste sit in the warehouse at Textile Products, which Ben Willis says are coloured by the unique mix of fabrics run through the machine. Photo / Madeleine Crutchley
Processed pallets of textile waste sit in the warehouse at Textile Products, which Ben Willis says are coloured by the unique mix of fabrics run through the machine. Photo / Madeleine Crutchley

You’ve probably encountered shoddy before. It’s commonly sprawled in the back of moving vans, flung over floors at construction sites or used as a protective cushioning around precious cargo.

You’ve likely encountered shoddy linguistically, too. We use it as a pejorative adjective, describing something as poor quality or degrading someone’s sloppy workmanship.

Fascinated by the fabric, and its evocative nickname, William dived into the archives. He was excited to find that shoddy “had this huge, huge 200-year history”.

William says he’s enamoured with asking questions and archive diving — an impulse he attributes to his parent’s patient answers, his training in classical ballet and his positionality growing up queer and as a Chinese-Malaysian-European-Australian. Being othered in mainstream spaces, he says, encouraged him “to put a magnifying glass to society” and often ask “why”.

This was illustrated in his initial approach to shoddy.

“What the hell is this material? Where has it come from? Why am I looking at it?”

Historian Hana Rose Shell traces its threads back to the UK’s Industrial Revolution. As the pace and volume of clothing production increased, the amount of waste materials and garments grew. To deal with the growing excesses, small mill towns like Batley and Dewsbury began to shred and spin used woollen fibres with fresh wool. They were combined to create a new textile.

By the 1820s, workers were feeding woollen rags to large machines fitted with grinding teeth to make the partially recycled material. A few decades later, a refined version of the practice was widely adopted and shoddy became a common-use fabric. Later, British settlers in New Zealand also fed into the growing industry, exporting entire fleeces and shorn wool from their imported sheep to the UK.

“It started off as working-class workwear,” William notes. “They used to make army uniforms from it and wool blankets.”

It was also incorporated into suiting, coats, clothing, and carpets, Shell says.

However, the creation and adoption of shoddy fabrics were complex. William recalls his research of the so-called “devil’s dust” expelled from early machinery.

“It came with its disadvantages. The fibres are shredded, re-matted and then felted together and then pressed. Throughout that shredding process a lot of fine dust is created. When inhaled, it created this respiratory illness.”

Due to growing associations with the working class, immigrants and other stigmatised groups, devil’s dust disease, as well as an assumed lack of hygiene, the fabric fell out of fashion and was instead relegated to purely industrial uses.

This, as William notes, is when “the word ‘shoddy’ came to mean something of inferior quality.”

The storied history and complex social connotations of the textile made the recycled fabric even more enticing for William — a multiplicity of meanings to play with.

Emily Miller Sharma, co-founder of Mindful Fashion and general manager of Ruby and Liam, tries on William’s jacket, during the design awards judging.
Emily Miller Sharma, co-founder of Mindful Fashion and general manager of Ruby and Liam, tries on William’s jacket, during the design awards judging.

He found another source of inspiration in Franz Kafka’s short story Metamorphosis, which encapsulates the perspective of a salesman who has woken up as a “grotesque vermin” (commonly translated from the original German to mean cockroach).

“I really latched on to that notion of scavenging.”

The designer was, at first, taken with a literal reading of the story.

“I played around with notions of using cockroach specimens and embellishing clothing with that as an embroidery technique, kind of how they would use scarabs in antiquity.”

However, he found this approach too limiting and turned his mind back to the textile itself — considering its existing ties to scavenging through its use of waste.

“By imbuing the notions of my text into the fabric, it really freed me up. It allowed me to express I that love suiting, I love refined tailoring, and for me, the form came really naturally.”

The result, after jamming the thick fabric through a machine and completing many hours of hand-sewing, is a tailored suit. William named the jacket and pants The Cockroach in a nod to Kafka.

At first glance, the suit is a deep purple-red, which William attributes to a whole heap of pink insulation that had to be reworked due to an (ultra-capitalistic) patent. However, getting a little closer to the nebulous of fibres, you can see bright and bold flecks of colour.

The unique texture of William’s garments.
The unique texture of William’s garments.

It encourages your mind to wander. What is the fabric made of? Orange? Maybe a high-vis jacket. Dark blue? Probably a well-worn boiler suit. Pink? Perhaps an unwanted woollen jumper.

Some notions of luxury developed in opposition to the worries imbued in shoddy — “untouched”, “pure” and even “virgin” fibres were sought after.

And, this process, where the recycled nature of the clothing is unhidden, totally evident or “shameless” (as William suggests), is a challenge to those Puritan ideals.

The designer saw the potential for a cheeky commentary on the common associations of luxury.

“That notion of classism, of tailoring, suiting is really, really at the upper echelons. To make something quite luxurious, like a tailored suit, out of something made from complete waste and just juxtapose those two notions next to each other. “

For some, the long history of this process may have rendered it inert in the pages of a history book. It’s a circular solution devoid of gloss or overwrought optimism. But, instead, it’s a grounded and interesting case study in eco-conscious design.

“For me, looking back, and understanding the infrastructure that’s already in place, is a sustainable thing to do.”

A curious approach has propelled him to find an answer where others refused to look. He’s arrived at a design that is artistic, thoughtful and storied. For William, there’s an obvious circularity in this stigmatised fabric, that gives a huge volume of textile waste “another life within fashion”.

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